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Consumer awareness was one of the top industry issues identified during the first wine industry summit held in Washington State. The summit, sponsored by the Washington Wine Institute, will help shape industry policy agendas in 2006 and beyond.

Wine Institute President Tim Hightower said that the industry is facing many changes. “We are trying to be proactive and get out ahead of the issues. The summit was put together to hear the views from a broad and encompassing group.”

Robin Pollard, executive director of the institute, added that the summit was intended to bring the industry together to identify the most pressing issues.

Poll

Growers, wine producers, distributors, and associated industry members participating in the summit used interactive polling to identify areas in which Washington’s wine industry can have impact. Participants were polled on industry strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats from the outside.

Pollster Stuart Elway of Elway Research, Inc., a public opinion research firm in Seattle, Washington, led the situation analysis and instructed the summit members in using the handheld polling devices to rate the importance and degree of impact that the industry can have on various issues that were identified during the meeting.

The need to improve consumer awareness about Washington wines by developing a branded product, was the top issue in the polling survey. Participants agreed that while the wine trade knows about Washington wines, many consumers still confuse the nation’s capital with Washington State or think that rain clouds blanket the entire state.

Also ranking high in the survey were legislative and regulatory issues and the need to maintain and improve grape and wine quality. Summit participants shared concerns about ever increasing paperwork, permits, and taxes. Research and education were identified as ways to preserve and improve quality.

Excitement and concerns

A panel of growers, wine producers, and a distributor discussed opportunities they see, as well as “what keeps them awake at night” during the summit.

Panelist Kay Simon, winemaker and owner of Chinook Wines in Prosser, is enthused about the growth in the industry. “It is exciting that so many people want to get into our business that we can’t know them all.” Not long ago, the industry was small enough that everyone knew each other. But she worries about the ability to keep mutual respect for each other as grower and winery numbers continue to climb.

Grower and wine producer Chris Figgins of Leonetti Cellars, Walla Walla, sees opportunity to improve grape and wine quality through viticultural advances and better understanding of clones and site selection. He is concerned about pest and disease issues and worries about phylloxera, leafroll virus, and grape mealybug. He also worries about vine-killing temperatures that periodically occur in winter.

“What keeps me awake is the worry that we need to protect what we have,” said Doug Gore, senior vice president of winemaking and operations at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. “We need to have good solid winemaking as the industry expands. The last few years, you can almost taste that it’s been ‘our’ time.” But he warns against complacency and resting on past successes.

Research

Brenton Roy, grower from Prosser, said he believes the state’s wine industry is “underresearched” and that the state compares poorly to other countries and states that are contributing more to viticultural and enology research. New technology and research are needed to help Washington compete against wine regions that have lower inputs and costs.

Some summit participants agreed with Roy’s assessment on research. Five new viticulture and enology researchers recently joined Washington State University, but they are “almost embarrassingly under funded” due to a shrinking pool of state and federal research dollars, said grape grower Tedd Wildman.

“It’s exciting that Washington can demand respect on the world market,” said Seattle wine distributor and panelist Matt Mabus of Cordon Selections, Seattle. “There is a sea of wine out there, and yet you can command world respect.” His biggest fear is that people are getting into the wine business without due diligence and education.

Other concerns voiced by panelists and industry members included consolidation of the distribution system, the need to sell more wine outside the state, federal and state tax and licensing regulations, and the importance of maintaining and improving wine grape and wine quality.

Results of the summit survey will be used as a mandate, said Hightower, adding that some of the issues, like regulatory concerns, are handled by the institute, while issues dealing with consumer awareness are addressed by the Washington Wine Commission. The Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers is involved with bolstering the industry’s viticulture and enology research program.

Funding

The Washington Wine Commission, a state agency, is funded through grower and winery assessments; however, both the Washington Wine Institute and the grape growers association are voluntary organizations.